I Want a New Drug
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha
By Robert Patrick
Jesse Eisenberg’s persona is that of the skittish intellectual. His tongue sputters like the dying propeller of a old bi-plane whenever he attempts to make modest conversation. And he shares an uncanny, unshakable likeness to the more celebrated gawkiness of Michael Cera. Both have gangly builds, stutter while making quiet observations, and have unmistakably pointed features. But here, in director Kevin Asch’s film about Hasidic ecstasy dealers in the late nineties, Eisenberg is the anointed awkward one.
Sam Gold (Eisenberg) is a young, perpetually faithful Hasid in a community of the same cloth in New York. Sam helps his father in the family business, keeps to himself, and doesn’t let the constructs of a secular society scratch his moral compass. But while he is a respectful believer in his faith, he, like any other person of his age, longs for the fleeting touch of a girl’s hand and the snap of crisp money.
In exploiting the situation, Yosef (Justin Bartha), a Hasid more in look than practice, begins to tutor the naive Sam in the ways of making money. How do you make good income? Sell narcotics, the charasmatic bad seed says. Or, in Sam’s case, deliver “medicine.” Because Yosef is a nightcrawler who prowls the streets of his neighborhood with an unsavory slur and a checkered grin, Sam is mesmorized by his loose obligations to religion. Because Sam is the total antithesis of Yosef’s serpentine suggestiveness, the young Hasid becomes more and more fascinated with the wolf-like tendencies in his new friend’s personality.
Bartha’s portrayal as the sleazy, unkempt, and often times woozy drug aficionado serves as sort of a beacon for “Holy Rollers” to keep from sinking. The way Bartha moves his cigarette, for instance, is done with such fluidity that it almost looks like an orchestrator’s baton. And why not? Everyone in the movie does what he says.
Eventually Sam becomes well versed in drug trafficking – he even helps recruit other Hasids into the ring – and starts to molt his previous persona as a lovelorn teenager with little world knowledge. The transistion, some insist, is a bit too quick to be believable .But I think some reviewers fail to acknowledge that Sam, in being so mercurial in his beliefs, was never really good or bad, moral or unjust. Sam was a blank slate, a canvas with little more than a few stubs of texture to pass over. Eisenberg, in giving into the script and helping to write it with the rest of the crew, believes in his character – and that what makes the film so workable.
“Holy Rollers” isn’t inundated with intrigue or breakneck action sequences, but it is thoughtful and collectively well acted. I’m always fond of a good score – which this has – and some interesting chemisty. Including Q-Tip as a drug lord was a bit of a stretch, but I’ll give Asch a pass on this one.
It may not be a blip on the radar during award season, but it is, under all of its modest components, a fun film to watch on a slumber-laden afternoon.